Ruth Pratt, a New York City icon of government reform and fiscal conservatism, won election to the House of Representatives on the eve of the worst economic disaster ever to befall the country. Congresswoman Pratt’s support for the Herbert Hoover administration’s cautious programs to remedy the Great Depression held firm, even as the national crisis worsened and Americans, in ever–greater numbers, looked to the federal government for relief.
Ruth Sears Baker was born on August 24, 1877, in Ware, Massachusetts, daughter of the cotton manufacturer Edwin H. Baker and Carrie V. Baker. Ruth Baker attended Dana Hall in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Wellesley College, where she majored in mathematics. She also studied violin at the Conservatory of Liege in Belgium.1 In 1904, Ruth Baker married John Teele Pratt, a lawyer and the son of Charles Pratt, a pioneer Standard Oil Company executive and founder of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The couple settled in New York City’s Upper East Side and raised five children: Virginia, Sally, Phyllis, Edwin, and John, Jr. Ruth established strong ties with the community by engaging in a range of philanthropic activities. When her husband died in 1927, he left Ruth Pratt a fortune estimated at more than $9 million.
Pratt’s involvement in Republican politics in New York began during World War I, when she worked with the Woman’s Liberty Loan Committee. She served on the mayor’s wartime food commission and met Herbert Hoover, then head of the National Food Administration.2 She remained a Hoover devotee throughout her political life, working for his presidential nomination in 1920 and helping to deliver the New York state delegation to Hoover’s side at the 1928 GOP convention.3 Pratt initially balked at the notion of elective office, choosing instead to focus on the upbringing of her five children. In January 1924, she was chosen as the associate GOP leader of New York’s Upper East Side Assembly district—providing her a powerful political base for the next decade.
When she overcame her reluctance to enter the political limelight and campaigned for city alderman against Democrat James O’Gorman, the race received national attention because no woman in New York City history had ever served on the city’s governing body. With a heavily Republican constituency, Pratt won by a wide majority on November 4, 1925.4 As alderman, she clashed repeatedly with Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine, particularly over the budget, which she believed could be slashed by millions if spending, patronage positions, and rampant graft were curtailed. She became known as the “Watchdog of the Treasury.”5 In 1928, after winning re–election by an even larger margin, she introduced measures to authorize construction of the Triborough Bridge and tunnels under the East River.
Pratt entered the race for an open U.S. House seat in September 1928, when Democratic incumbent William Cohen declined the nomination. Her combination of wealth, social standing, and knowledge of local politics suited New York’s “Silk Stocking District,” an area that cut a geographical East–West swath across midtown Manhattan and included the city’s wealthy parts of the theater district, and the westside docks and shipping businesses. Running on a platform that called for modifying the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) to allow for the production of light wines and beer but no hard alcohol, Pratt comfortably won the September 28 primary with 62 percent of the vote.6 In the general election, she emphasized her credentials as an alderman against Democratic opponent Phillip Berolzheimer, who ran as a “wet” anti–Prohibition candidate.7 She defeated Berolzheimer with 50 to 44 percent of the vote—despite the fact that the Democrats had a strong ticket, featuring New York Governor Al Smith as the party’s presidential candidate. “That puts the Seventeenth District, back where it belonged, in the Republican column and I am glad that a woman did it,” Pratt rejoiced on election night. “But I did not run as a woman. I ran for the Board of Aldermen and for Congress not as a woman but as a citizen.”8 When she took her seat in the 71st Congress (1929–1931), Ruth Baker Sears Pratt became the first woman to represent New York in the national legislature.
During Pratt’s first term, she received assignments on the Banking and Currency Committee, the first for a woman and a nod to her work on New York City’s budget and the Library Committee. In her first House speech, she criticized a proviso of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Bill that raised the duty on sugar imports, arguing that the increase would be needlessly passed on to consumers and would fail to improve the wages and conditions of sugar workers.9 Pratt’s first House bill sought to increase benefits for permanently disabled World War I veterans, though she would later oppose an across–the–board bonus for all veterans.10 She also favored repealing the 18th Amendment and, after the onset of the Depression in 1929, noted that liquor production, transportation, and sales would create new jobs.11 In January 1930, from her seat on the Library Committee, Pratt introduced a bill for a $75,000 annual appropriation to acquire and publish books for the blind. With the public backing of Helen Keller, a nationally recognized advocate for the blind, it eventually passed the House and Senate, providing the Library of Congress $100,000 annually to procure Braille books. Pratt also presided over the House as Speaker pro tempore on numerous occasions during her first term.
On the Banking and Currency Committee, Pratt and her colleagues contended with the effects of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and a severe midwestern drought, catalysts for the Great Depression. Pratt introduced a bill amending the Federal Reserve Act to streamline the rules guiding the election of officers of Federal Reserve banks. She also advocated balancing the federal budget and limiting government intervention, once remarking that, “There is a real need for the people once more to grasp the fundamental fact that under our system of government they are expected to solve many problems themselves through their municipal and state governments.”12 In the 72nd Congress (1931–1933), with little fanfare, Pratt was assigned to the Education Committee and left Banking and Currency. She remained a fiscal conservative, however, refusing to countenance federally backed programs to alleviate the nation’s economic woes. Pratt praised Hoover’s reliance on private funding to curb unemployment. By 1932, as the administration considered additional measures to address the Depression, Pratt rejected the General Relief Bill as a “crowning folly” which would “unbalance the Budget.” The bill sought to broaden the powers of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the central organizational response of the Hoover administration, and to create a public works program to employ large numbers of idle workers. A few hours after Pratt’s speech, the House passed the bill, 216–182.13 She also opposed the Steagall Bill, which called for the creation of a federal insurance guarantee fund to protect individuals’ bank deposits.14
As a woman alderman and one of the few Republicans in the Democratically controlled Tammany Hall, Pratt and her reform efforts gained the attention of the press. In Congress, however, Pratt’s appeal as a crusader diminished as she joined a group of women and became part of the Republican majority and an ardent defender of the Hoover administration. She spoke rarely on the House Floor and the impression of many voters was that she was ineffectual, if not somewhat disinterested in national politics. “New York circumstances put her in the position of an outspoken objector,” a New York Times writer observed in 1932. “In Washington circumstances have made it possible to play the game with the rest of the team and be good. And in politics as in morals it is hard to find a spectacular way of being good.”15 Nevertheless, her name was mentioned prominently as a possible New York City mayoral candidate in 1930 and as a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1932.16
Internal politics within her district threatened to derail Pratt’s 1930 re–election bid. Able to secure the Republican nomination despite dissension in the party ranks, Pratt faced Tammany Hall’s handpicked Democratic candidate, City Magistrate Louis B. Brodsky, in the general election and the journalist Heywood Broun running on the Socialist ticket.17 Though she polled only about half the total of her first election, Pratt held on to win by a bare margin—695 votes out of some 45,000 cast. In 1932 she faced yet another tough battle to win re–election to the House. Prior to the 1932 GOP National Convention, a faction in the New York delegation, disenchanted with Hoover, attempted to unseat Pratt as a delegate. The move failed but seemed to weaken her base of support heading into the fall elections.18 In the Republican primary, she weathered charges from opponents that she had abused the House franking privilege. After securing the Republican nomination, Pratt squared off against Democratic challenger Theodore A. Peyser.19 With the two candidates agreeing on the substantive issues, the decisive factor in the race became the presidential election. Disenchanted with Hoover’s economic policies, American voters swept New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Democratic coalition into the federal government. In what had been an evenly divided House, the Democrats gained a commanding majority as the GOP hemorrhaged—losing 111 seats. In her Manhattan district race, Pratt lost to Peyser in a four–way race by a margin of 53 percent to 44 percent.
After Congress, Ruth Pratt served as chair of the Fine Arts Foundation, a forerunner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was appointed to the Republican Builders, a group formed to renew the party after the defeats of 1932 and 1934. She continued to live in New York City and was president of the Women’s National Republican Club from 1943 to 1946. On August 23, 1965, a day before her 88th birthday, Pratt died in Glen Cove, New York.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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